Celebrity Suicide

The Bendigo Art Gallery’s blockbuster exhibition, Marilyn Monroe, has attracted thousands of visitors from Melbourne and regional Victoria and smaller numbers from interstate and overseas. People visiting the exhibition are treated to a comprehensive display which brings together authentic artefacts, personal clothing and costumes worn by Marilyn, as well as film footage, studio portraits and film posters.

Accompanying the show at the gallery is a giant sculpture of Marilyn by American artist Seward Johnson, which stands in the centre of Bendigo. It has received unprecedented interest and has been photographed often much to the ire of some who believe too much attention has been given to the once glamorous screen goddess.

Marilyn Munroe lived a tragic life. Her difficult childhood included accounts of sexual abuse. She married young, divorced three times and had a number of miscarriages. When she died in August 1962, with the cause listed as probable suicide there was extensive media coverage and widespread sorrow. Her death triggered a jump in the suicide rate of 12% when compared with the same months in the previous year. Researchers are quick to point out that people who kill themselves are already at risk, but excessive publicity around a suicide, particularly a celebrity suicide, can influence the way vulnerable people consider their future.

South Korea has the highest rate of suicide amongst industrialised countries. Celebrities are especially vulnerable and the death of a prominent personality can result in a wave of ‘sympathetic suicides.’ When successful actress Choi Jin-Sil took her life in 2008, there was a 70% spike in suicide rates in the next 3 months following her death. In one month alone (November 2008) there were 1700 deaths. Her public life as a single, working, divorced mum put her under considerable pressure in a society where traditional social values are faltering. She received criticism and unrelenting online abuse.

When comedian and award-winning actor Robin Williams took his own life in 2014 there was genuine concern among mental health professionals what this would mean for his fans, particularly those struggling with their own mental health issues. Any publicised suicide sparks fears of a copycat effect.

But in this instance, the outcome was quite different. John Draper, a psychologist who serves as director of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (NSPH), said that on August 12, the day after Williams’ death, calls to the Hotline more than doubled from a typical 3,500 a day to about 7,400. This trend continued for several months if not at the same peak levels.

Dr Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, observed, “When help seeking increases, it is usually thought to be a positive sign of people who would otherwise have been suffering in silence reaching out for help.”

“When help seeking increases, it is usually thought to be a positive sign of people who would otherwise have been suffering in silence reaching out for help.”

There are specific media guidelines for reporting suicide. They highlight the dangers in describing the means of death or glamorising the event. They propose a more sensitive approach that focuses on the needs of those who might be struggling in isolation and where they might get help.

John Draper paid tribute to the way the media had covered Robin Williams’ death. He said,

“The more the media talks about the effectiveness and impact of suicide prevention as opposed to the impact of suicide itself, the more likely people are to get and seek help. The story of hope has got to get out there.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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